Esther Williamson channels men, women, gods and even a rock formation in Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s “An Iliad.” But it’s her evocation of disparate attitudes that gives this one-person epic its power and bite. In the role of the Poet, a veteran chronicler of the Trojan War, Williamson sometimes radiates delight in military glory — the kind of enthusiasm that might have inspired a ticker-tape parade for Achilles.
But more often during this absorbing 95-minute production, directed by Dan Crane, the Poet seems aptly uneasy about the act of commemorating war. She is ruefully aware of suffering — and of history. In one of the play’s most memorable sequences, she becomes disoriented while describing a long-ago battlefield atrocity. Dazedly, she begins reciting a centuries spanning, roughly chronological list of armed conflicts, including the Peloponnesian War, various Crusades and the Iran-Iraq war. Finally, she huddles on the floor, repeating the word “Syria” again and again.
A vigorous stage presence, Williamson ably draws out the resonance of “An Iliad,” written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and based on Homer’s “The Iliad” as translated by Robert Fagles. (“An Iliad” was first produced in Seattle in 2010. Subsequent productions have included Studio Theatre’s version a few years ago.) She creates a persuasively modern, ambivalent, self-aware Poet — a figure who sometimes exults in the grandeur of epic but more frequently feels burdened by the responsibility of bearing witness to violence.
The Poet’s struggle as a storyteller comes through all the more clearly because of the spareness of this intimate production at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The audience sits on two sides of the stage area, which is bare except for glass bottles that seem to be filled with either sand or water. Chalked lines of Greek lettering spider across one wall. Behind the audience, on one side, a musician from the band Hand Grenade Job (Erin McCarley and Beck Levy alternate) supplies frugal, moody sounds.
In the show’s opening moments, the Poet opens a bottle and scatters sand across the floor — a stand-in for the beach outside Troy. Dressed in a long skirt, a sleeveless top and boots, she launches into her epic, pausing now and then for digressions, such as wry speculation (with an arch smile) that, when modern times arrived, the Greek gods took up residence in gin, vodka and tequila.
Sometimes, movement contributes to storytelling. At one point, for instance, the Poet leans forward and back to suggest waves on a beach. Moments later, she mimes the act of rowing while describing the regional affiliation of Greek units landing near Troy: Suddenly, Greek place names cede to American place names, driving home the point that war is a phenomenon known to all countries and times.
A veteran of all-female productions by the Riot Grrrls, an arm of Taffety Punk, Williamson nimbly conjures up male “Iliad” figures such as the sulky Achilles and the irritating Paris. Still, whether or not for reasons related to the performer’s gender, I found myself particularly conscious of the story’s references to, or depictions of, female characters who are sidelined (e.g. Andromache) or exploited (e.g., the girl who becomes Agamemnon’s war prize) by men. The weary, troubled Poet might be the first to acknowledge that war tends to be a macho endeavor.
“An Iliad,” by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. Based on Homer’s “The Iliad,” translated by Robert Fagles. Directed by Dan Crane; light design, Paul Callahan; set, costume and prop design, Crista Noel Smith; movement, Dody DiSanto. 95 minutes. Tickets: $15. Through Oct. 22 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Visit taffetypunk.com or call 800-838-3006.